Living Up To Your Social Potential: Understanding the Emotions That Drive Sharing

Last week I shared how most publishers are realizing just a fraction of their potential audience because they lack a social distribution strategy, and showed which topics are most likely to be shared by connected audiences.

But is topic the only aspect of content that influences sharing?  Could articles with topics as disparate as gardening and bull fighting share some other characteristic that would make them both go viral?

The Journal of Marketing Research published the study What Makes Online Content Viral? in 2011 to appease inquiring minds.  Researchers analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over 2 months to determine what factors made an article more likely to earn a place on the Times’ “most-emailed” list.

What they found:

  • Intensely emotional content is  more viral
  • Positive content is more viral than negative
  • High-arousal emotions  (like anger, awe and anxiety) increase sharing
  • Low-arousal emotions (like sadness) decrease sharing
  • Practical value, surprise and interest (you don’t say!) all increase virality

But wait a minute…are the factors that predict email sharing the same as those that predict Facebook or Twitter sharing?  Here’s where we run into the difference between broadcasting and “narrowcasting.”  Remember that purple rash I mentioned last week?  I’ll email that WebMD article to my significant other (anxiety! practical value!) but I most certainly won’t tweet about it.


I looked again at the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 to see which of the study’s findings held up on the social networking stage.

Sound familiar?  It mirrors the formula for success that Nieman Lab found Buzzfeed using to achieve record results.  And, notably, practical value, the #2 driver of email virality, falls all the way down to the bottom of the list on Facebook.

In social network sharing, emotion is king.  As Jonah Lehrer of Wired puts it:

“We don’t want to share facts – we want to share feelings.  Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs.”

Before you go and replace all of your content with funny baby videos and Justin Bieber songs, remember that this isn’t about sacrificing the integrity of content for traffic.  It doesn’t work that way.  This is about engaging readers on the most important axis of all: the axis of significance.  Emotional content helps us connect with friends online in a deeper way than a how-to video might.

But what if you’re a publisher of practical content?  No need to despair:

“The future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” says Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed).

We all have a powerful emotional drive to live a great life, and getting there means knowing how to be healthy, how to fix a leaky faucet and how to maintain successful relationships.  Oprah’s tagline “Live Your Best Life” is a beautiful example – no one is better at linking home décor and health advice to something far greater and more aspirational.  Publishers in the midst of developing a social distribution strategy (especially those of us not lucky enough to traffic in Bieber songs) will be wise to follow her lead.

4 thoughts on “Living Up To Your Social Potential: Understanding the Emotions That Drive Sharing

  1. Hi Ben


    Once again
    a great article and as always you are pushing and stretching the boundaries
    with some new idea or paradigm! In the article above, I absolutely agree that content
    that has emotional context is more likely to be shared. The question is how do
    we insert and invoke emotion into our content easily and quickly and in so
    doing increase likelihood of sharing? Today the technology already bombards all
    our senses… however the next wave has got to be about how the full breath of
    multimedia available can be employed to add emotion to our personal content in the
    digital world.  


    it not be fantastic to replicate the following experience on line using the
    full breath of media? Let me play out the following scenario: most people will
    agree that there are times when they have met a new person, immediately connected
    and shared quality time together. Most times with absolute strangers and only a one-time experience, but for those moments they willingly shared conversations, ideas,
    experiences, interests or some mindless gossip. Most important, it was so so
    effortless and at the end of such an encounter feeling totally refreshed and positive
    – the “wow encounter”. Some explain such experiences as prior life
    connections (re-incarnation story). However my guess is that two individuals
    managed to share content so effortlessly because their emotional barometers were
    in perfect harmony!   


    could go on, but better stop!!! Just wanted to say loved the article and please,
    please do write more on this fascinating subject!


    • Thank you Afzal.

      I think there’s a point where the science of technology ends and the art of content begins. I’m grateful to the world’s artists, journalists, editors, and creatives who do their best to get the ‘wow’ connection every day. The technology helps with distribution, but you’re right – personal connections are made between people, not screens.

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